Landmark case of Hussanaira Khatoon Vs St. of Bihar on the Writ of Habeas Corpus

Court :
1. P.N. Bhagwati 2. D.A. Desai

Brief :
The two masters of law, Justice Bhagwati and Justice Desai, ordered the release of a huge number of Under-trials who have been behind the bars for periods more than the maximum period that could be awarded for the crimes they had been charged with. Restoring the faith in courts, the two justices even asked the govt to make a comprehensive law on the issue and a machinery to smoothen the process of getting free legal aid in the country.

Citation :
1979 AIR 1369 1979 SCR (3) 532 1980 SCC (1) 98

Date of Judgment: 09/03/1979

Sections Applied:     

  • Article 21 (Right to life and personal liberty 
  • Article 14 (Equality)
  • Article 39 A (Free Legal Aid)

Facts of the case :

The case dealt, inter alia, with the rights of the undertrial prisoners on habeas corpus petitions, which disclosed a shocking state of affairs in regard to the administration of justice in the State of Bihar. An alarmingly large number of men and women, children including, were behind prison bars for years awaiting trial in courts of law. The offences with which some of them were charged were trivial, which even if proved, would not warrant punishment for more than a few months, perhaps a year or two, and yet they remained in jail, deprived of their freedom, for periods ranging from three to ten years without even as much as their trial having commenced. The Court ordered the immediate release of these undertrials many of whom were kept in jail without trial or even without a charge.

Fairness under Article 21 is impaired where procedural law does not provide speedy trial of accused; does not provide for his pre-trial release on bail on his personal bond, when he is indigent and there is no substantial risk of his absconding; if an under-trial prisoner is kept in jail for a period longer than the maximum term of imprisonment which could have been awarded on his conviction and if he is not offered free legal aid, where he is too poor to engage a lawyer, provided the lawyer engaged by the State is not objected to by the accused.

Where the petitioner succeeds in establishing his case, the Court would grant him any relief which is necessary to afford proper justice or to prevent manifest injustice regardless of technicalities such as to issue directions to the Government and other appropriate authorities, as may be necessary, to secure to a prisoner his constitutional rights.

The Supreme Court held that the state cannot be permitted to deny the constitutional right of speedy trial to the accused on the ground that the State has no adequate financial resources to incur the necessary expenditure needed for improving the administrative and judicial apparatus with a view to improving speedy trial.

Analysis: The decision by our apex court was one of the boldest and revolutionary which made the viral news of the time. The step restored the faith of the citizens of India in the judicial system of India, or at least in the Supreme Court of India. However, it is to be noted that, such steps should be taken only in pursuance of a proper strategy and understanding of the matter, only when proper mind is applied and plans made for the future developments.                                                


Raghav Arora
on 27 June 2018
Published in Others
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